Jonathan Franzen Responds to Sexism Accusations: "There’s No Way to Make Myself Not Male"

While promoting his new novel, 'Purity,' the author also revealed he considered adopting an Iraqi orphan in order to understand young people.
Greg Martin/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

While promoting his new novel, Purity, Jonathan Franzen responded to the constant accusations he receives about being sexist and also talked about the time he thought about adopting an Iraqi orphan so that he could understand millennials.

"I’m not a sexist," he said in an interview with The Guardian. "I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention."

"None of that is ever enough," said the author. "Because a villain is needed. It’s like, there’s no way to make myself not male."

He said there's nothing left for him to do "except die — or, I suppose, retire and never write again."

Franzen predicted that a character in Purity is going to upset his feminist critics. The character is described by The Guardian as "a fanatical feminist who, among other things, forces her husband to urinate sitting down on the toilet to atone for his maleness."

“There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book,” said Franzen. "Because I know that if you are hostile, you will find ammunition."

During the interview, Franzen, 56, talked about how he and his partner were thinking about adopting an Iraqi war orphan when he was in his late 40s in order to understand the younger generation.

"Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan." He said the idea lasted "maybe six weeks."

"One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation," said Franzen. "They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least, not in any way that was accessible to me."

He said that he instead met up with university graduates, who "cured" him of his "anger at young people."

Franzen also addressed his 2011 flap with Oprah Winfrey in which he disparaged her show after she offered to include his novel The Corrections as part of her book club. "It was a tragic misunderstanding," Franzen said. "I blame myself, because I said things that were stupid. And hurt a number of people."

"I also blame Oprah," Franzen continued. "Because, from our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language. I didn’t scream when she called me. I said, ‘Oh, hey.’ And was trying to talk like a media professional to a media professional. And she didn’t know what to do with that.”

Franzen feels that the talk show host was unable to break her public persona, adding: "And I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder. And I think she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did diss her. But not before I’d had that experience.”

Franzen's book Purity will be released on Sept. 1.